After yet another delay with the bus out of Flagstaff, we drove on through the afternoon and into the night. The desert landscape looked as empty as ever for most of the journey, but I could tell when the bus was drawing closer to Las Vegas by the signs and flashing lights that became ever more frequent on the side of the road. Eventually the sparse surroundings gave way to more buildings, and soon the roads were aglow as the streetlights began lighting up the night. I’d messaged ahead to let my host know I would be late, so he was waiting for me outside the bus depot when it finally pulled into Las Vegas.
The story of how I ended up where I ended up in Las Vegas is a typical example of the networking that happens and the connections you make when you’re backpacking. Back when I was travelling from Cambodia back to Thailand on the original bus ride from hell, I had been left waiting for a bus to take me from the Cambodian/Thai border back to Bangkok with a handful of other travellers. Sitting on white plastic chairs in the hot tropical morning sun, I had gotten chatting with a girl named Ashley. We bonded over the complete logistical nightmare we had found ourselves in, and began comparing our experiences as travellers in Cambodia. From her accent, I could clearly tell that Ashley was North American, but she was actually the first to ask whereabouts in the world I was from.
“You’re from Sydney? No way!” she’d said when I told her where I hailed from. “That’s where I’m heading after my travelling in Thailand.” I told her that I wouldn’t be back in Australia for many more months, since at that stage I was less than two months into my journey, but never-the-less we decided to exchange contact details so that we could keep in touch, and that I when she finally arrived in Sydney I might be able to help her out in some way.
“And how about you? You’re from the US, right?”
“Yep, I come from Las Vegas,” she said with a smile.
“Vegas? Like, you actually live there?” For all the crazy stories and parties I’d heard about happening in Las Vegas, I don’t think I could ever recall meeting someone who actually lived there. But it just so happened to be Ashley’s hometown, and she told me to let her know if I was ever heading that way – even if she wasn’t around, she said she’d be more than happy to hook me up with some of her friends back home. At that stage I had absolutely no idea what my plans for the USA were, but I told her that I’d be in touch if I ever found myself headed there.
Fast forward to roughly 7 months later and Ashley’s friend Ly was greeting my as I hopped off the bus in Las Vegas. It was a Friday night, so as we drove back to his place he told me that he had a bunch of people coming over later that night to celebrate a friends birthday, and that they would be heading out to the nearby Downtown area of Las Vegas. I was fairly ignorant to the geography of the city, and soon learned that the typical Vegas that you see on postcards and in movies is all located at “The Strip”. That’s also where most of the hotels are, and therefore where most of the tourists can be found. However, tonight I would be seeing Las Vegas through the eyes of the locals. When we arrived, Ly introduced me to his housemate Chris and their dogs Button and Roxie, and then showed me where I would be sleeping. It was a long room that had three double beds, but without any bed frames, so they had all been pushed together to form one kind of super bed.
“We have people crashing here pretty regularly, so we have a lot of room on stand-by”, Ly explained to me. As tempting as it was to just collapse in the the sea of blankets and pillows, I threw my stuff down by the edge of the super mattress and headed to the bathroom to freshen up. I knew if I laid down now I probably wouldn’t get back up, and there’d be plenty of time to sleep after Friday night.
After getting ready I headed out to the kitchen, where Ly made me a drink and introduced me to the people who had arrived so far. By morning I would have forgotten most of their faces and all of their names, but they were all friendly enough, and when Ly told them that I had ended up there through connections with Ashley, they all either rolled their eyes or sighed, exclaiming “Of course he knows Ashley!” Before turning to me and asking: “Where is she now?”
“Um, I think she’s in Sydney?”
“In Australia? Nice! Is that where you met here?”
“Ah, no. I actually met her in… Cambodia? Well, technically Thailand, I guess.”
“You were in Thailand? Wait, when was Ashley in Thailand?” Apparently, to this group of people, Ashley was what I had become to my own friends back home – that traveller who’s been gone so long that no one’s really sure where she even was anymore. I smiled and wondered what my friends would have been saying about me in a similar situation back home – although in reality it hadn’t been that long since I’d seen some of them in New York.
After a few strong cocktails and a round of “Happy Birthday” for the birthday girl, we piled into a couple of cars and drove the very short distance to the main bar area of Downtown Vegas. First we had a couple of drinks in a bar called Griffin, before moving next door to a place called Commonwealth. The bars were cool, but they seemed more like dive bars, and nothing about them screamed anything remotely lavish or extravagant, or anything I’d come to understand as being stereotypically Vegas. In fact, I couldn’t even see any gambling machines. I’d soon learn that many of the people who actually live in Las Vegas are performers who spend most of their working lives around the strip surrounded by that kind of environment. On their nights off, they just want to escape to a normal bar like everyone else. Not to say that the place wasn’t going off, because it was definitely packed out. I got separated from my gang as we crossed the dance floor to get to the other side of the club, and as I was scanning the room to see where they’d gone, the girl in front of me turned around and thrust a shot glass towards me.
“Here, we got an extra shot!” she yelled over the music. “It’s Fireball!” I’d been sampling Fireball whiskey all along my journey through the Southwest, and I’d become quite a fan, so I didn’t really give it a second thought before throwing the shot back and continuing my way across the dance floor – it was the first of many free drinks that I’d be scoring over my weekend in this city.
I eventually caught up with Ly and the rest of the group, and I hung out with them for a while, although it wasn’t that easy to have a conversation with all the loud music. It was also the first straight club that I had been in for quite a while, which might sound kind of petty, but when you’ve been touring the world and mostly sampling the gay bars in the each city you visit, the general difference in atmosphere is startlingly obvious. When the girl whose birthday it was got up to go to the bathroom, I was left sitting with a group of boys who all started up a conversation about her.
“Is she seeing anyone? Do you think she’s gonna hook up with anyone?” They were throwing around that sort of weirdly uncomfortable banter, which I wasn’t that interested in anyway, but between them I heard assertions of platonic friendship, as well as a few of the guys deciding who was in the best position to “take a shot” at getting with her. Then, in what played out in my mind as some kind of bad punchline, they turned to me.
“How about you, man? You think she’s hot?”
I literally choked on my drink, and awkwardly cleared my throat after regaining my breath. “Um… Ashley… Ashley didn’t mention to any of you that I was gay, did she?”
There was a split second of blank, awkward stares, followed by a round of embarrassed laughter and “Sorry, man!” before returning to the eventual topic of who was going to, at least in their minds, ‘get the girl’.
I’m sure they were probably lovely guys and were possibly just joking around, not taking anything they were saying too seriously. I didn’t really feel like sticking around to find out though. I’d somehow lost Ly through all this, and between drinks at home, not really having eaten dinner, a few drinks in the club plus the surprise Fireball shot, I was actually quite drunk. And so I did what any drunk gay man who is having an average time in a straight bar would do – I found some wifi, did a quick Google search, and directed myself to the nearest gay bar. Which didn’t actually seem too far away… on Google Maps, at least. It was about a 15 minute walk, which isn’t that far, really, except that it was a lot colder outside than I had realised. And instead of walking along busy streets with other shops, bars and people, my directions took me down some pretty empty, suburban looking streets. But I’d come so far that I couldn’t bring myself to admit that I might be lost and turn around, so on through the cold I trudged.
As it would happen, I wasn’t lost at all, and I found Snicks Place exactly where it was supposed to be. Except when I opened the doors, I was greeted by an empty room. I’m not even exaggerating. There wasn’t a single patron in this bar. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but I certainly wasn’t ready to face the cold again, so I wandered in to find the bar and order a drink. It turned out that there was one patron at Snicks Place – the bartender and his friend were having a casual chat across the bar, and they both looked genuinely surprised to see me when I approached them. They asked me how my night was going, so I relayed my entire afternoon, from arriving in Las Vegas to drinking with my straight friends of a friend of a friend to finally making my way here. I guess it’s not every night that a young drunk Australian walks into the oldest gay bar in Las Vegas, which happened to be almost deserted, because the two guys were very interested in hearing all about my life and my travels. At least, I assume they were. In all honesty, I was pretty intoxicated by that point. But they still poured me another drink, and showed me how to work some of the gambling machines. My only experience with gambling had been the electronic poker machines in the bars back in Sydney, but this bar had all kinds of random gambling games and machines that I had never even seen before. I’m not much of a gambler, but there wasn’t really much else to do in the bar, so I had a go at them while I chatted to the two guys.
Eventually I must have started to give away just how drunk I was, because the bartender asked whereabouts I was staying. I had written Ly’s address down in my phone, but he seemed shocked that I wasn’t staying in a hotel or the more usual tourist accommodation. Then I mentioned Ly by name, and the bartenders face lit up in recognition.
“You’re staying with Ly?”
“Yeah! You know him?”
“Yeah, we’re all locals around here. Why don’t I give him call, maybe he can come pick you up?”
I think I was falling asleep at the bar by the time Ly arrived. I was so embarrassed and apologised profusely for him having to come and get me, but he just laughed it off and said it was nothing. He was a decent guy, and he didn’t seem to mind. He drove me home and helped me into the room, where there were two girls who passed out on the mega mattress. I crawled into my edge of the bed and passed out, scolding myself for being such a fool for wandering off aimlessly into the night, but promising myself that I’d do better with exploring Las Vegas tomorrow.